Skippy Dies, Paul Murray’s Irish boarding school novel longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker, has just recently come out in paperback. Buy it. Flip to page 294, where a character named Philip Kilfether is introduced like so:
“[Ruprecht] points to where Philip Kilfether, Seabrook’s Smallest Boy, sits just visible behind his juice carton. ‘All Philip Kilfether has ever dreamed of, since he was old enough to talk, is becoming a professional basketball player. But because of his underdeveloped pituitary gland, he’s never going to be more than four feet tall.’ They gaze at the tragic sight of Philip Kilfether, who spends hours on the basketball court every day, dashing from one end to the next as the ball whizzes unreachably over his head, and more hours in his room, performing stretching exercises in defiance of the medical prognosis.”
In the subsequent 300 pages of the book, Philip is never heard from again.
While Philip’s impact on the book may seem—ahem—small, his presence illustrates a crucial and often overlooked joy of reading: stories can be messy. Skippy Dies is a murder mystery (embroidered with some infidelity and string theory) deftly rendered, but it’s Murray’s use of incidentals—characters like Philip Kilfether and the equally eccentric Odysseas Antopopopolous—that really elevate the novel.
On their own, incidentals are, by definition, fun, frivolous. But their cumulative effect creates a vibrant fictional world that more closely resembles our own because it doesn't seem so cause-and-effect. Characters aren’t activated right when we find them, and events may happen when we’re not looking. In an incidental novel world, things are always going on in the background; things are always humming.
Too often writers forget how rewarding it is for readers to stumble upon that extra detail extraneous to the narrative, there just because it’s there. (This is especially true for writers coming out of M.F.A. background where economy is fetishized.) Even writers on the terser end of the prose spectrum slow down just for a moment. Consider this moment in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway:
“As they drove off Wilson saw her standing under the big tree, looking pretty rather than beautiful in her faintly rosy khaki, her dark hair drawn back off her forehead and gathered in a knot low on her neck, her face as fresh, he thought, as though she were in England.”
When applied to writing, “verisimilitude” too often refers exclusively to nailing down a believable story involving only the principals of character and setting (what did London look like in the late 1800s? Would that character be that smart and still make such shallow observations?) and not enough on the forgettable, frayed edges. Without unapologetically messy writing, we wouldn’t get paragraph-long descriptions of what the animals are eating in Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, and we certainly wouldn’t get the pleasure of meeting, if only in passing, someone like Philip Kilfether.